Common Names

Ginseng root , Ren-shen
Botanical Name
Panax ginseng
ARALIACEAE - Aralia or Ivy Family

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What is it?

It is the roots that are used in medicine, usually from plants that are at least 4 or 5 years old. Panax Ginseng is a small but long-lived herb with just a single stem and few leaves depending on the age of the plant. The first year of growth Ginseng has only one leaf and three leaflets, by the fourth year it will usually flower for the first time. The flowers are white and the berries are red. This slow growing and unassuming plant is revered the entire world over by those who know its virtue.




How has it been used?

Ginseng is known as ‘Renshen’ in China, ‘Ninshin’ in Japan and ‘Insam’ in Korea. These loosely translate to the idea of something that is the ‘fountain of youth’. Ginseng is so revered in these countries that the highest quality roots can be worth more than their weight in gold!

Ginseng is widely used in Eastern medicine for people that have sustained a severe loss of ‘energy’ (known as Chi or Qi), through illness or injury. Ginseng is used in this regard to restore strength when people have become physically exhausted or weakened.

Ginseng is also widely used by the elderly of the East. There Is a deep appreciation of the herb’s ability revitalise the life force and offset some of the tiredness and decline of getting old.

Ginseng has remained the most sought after and famous of all herbs in Chinese culture. The use of Ginseng has been recorded since 3000 B.C. though it surely will have been understood and used since even much earlier times.


Historical Notes on Panax

Panax Ginseng figured prominently in the first great Chinese herbal (the Pen Tsao Ching; the Classic of Herbs) compiled by the mythological emperor/sage Shen Nung. Here it was recommended for enlightening the mind and increasing wisdom and noted that continued use leads to longevity.

‘Panax’ comes from the Greek word 'Panacea', meaning to 'cure all'.

The word ‘Ginseng’ translates to 'man-essence' because the roots of ginseng often resembles the shape of a man’s body.

Panax Ginseng is not to be confused with Siberian or American Ginseng, those are great herbs in their own right but Panax is in a class of its own. It is the true 'Emperor Ginseng', in many ways the greatest tonic of all Chinese medicine.

Science on Panax Ginseng

There have been a large number of positive clinical trials using Panax Ginseng (in fact there are more than 1400 scientific papers on this one herb!) Nearly all of the trials have used a standardised extract of Panax that has been equivalent to 1 gram of the root per day, a level that is easily achieved in clinical practice. The following snippets are a short selection from the research:

~ Randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled quality of life studies have shown that Panax Ginseng improves well-being under stress, including alertness, relaxation, appetite, fatigue levels, sleep quality, recovery from the common cold and bronchitis and that it significantly reduces blood pressure compared with controls (Wiklund I, Karlberg J, Lund B, Curr Therapuet Res 1994;55(1):32-34)

~ Physical performance and visual and auditory reaction times were significantly increased in a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial using Panax Ginseng for 12 weeks in people aged from 22 to 80 years old (Dorling E, Kirchdorfer AM, Ruckert KH, Notabene Med 1980;10(5):241-246)

~ Male athletes significantly increased their aerobic capacity and significantly reduced their blood lactate and heart rate while taking Panax in randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials (Forgo I. Munch Med Wochenschr 1983;125(38):822-824)

~ Panax Ginseng significantly improved cell-mediated immunity function (chemotaxis, phagocytic activity and intracellular killing) in a double blind, placebo-controlled study involving healthy volunteers. Significant prevention of influenza and the common cold was demonstrated and the Panax Ginseng group also demonstrated significantly higher antibody levels and natural killer cell activity (Gundling k et al: Altern Ther Health Med 7(3):104, 2001)

~ Panax Ginseng extract improved the immune response in patients with chronic bronchitis in a placebo-controlled trial and that when taken for prolonged periods (over 4 months) it was shown to significantly increase the immune response; IgM and IgA antibody levels (Scaglione F, Cogo R, Cocuzza C et al. Int J Immunother 1994;10(1):21-24)

~ In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving patients with non-insulin dependent diabetes Panax Ginseng taken for 8 weeks significantly improved patients' fasting blood sugar glucose, mood, vigour, well-being and psychomotor performance (Sotaniemi EA, Haapakoski E, Rautio A. Diabetes Care 1995;18(10)1373-1375)

~ A significant improvement in cerebrovascular circulation was observed in patients with moderate cerebrovascular deficit treated with either Panax Ginseng, the drug hydergine or placebo in a double blind trial that was conducted over a three month period (Quiroga H. Orientacion Med 1982;31(1281):201-202)

~ Erectile function and HDL cholesterol were significantly improved in elderly men with psychogenic impotence treated with Panax Ginseng in a placebo-controlled study over a 2 month time frame (Kim YC, Hong YK, Shin JS et al. KJ Ginseng Sci 1996;20(2):125-132)

~ Sperm count, sperm motility, total testosterone, free testosterone and dihydrotestosterone rose significantly in men with unexplained low sperm count and low sperm counts due to variocele over a three month treatment course with Panax Ginseng (Salvati G, Genovesi G, Marcellini L et al. Panminerva Med 1996;38(4):229-254)

~ In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study postmenopausal women reported significant improvement in quality of life measures including depression and well-being. Panax Ginseng improved psychological test scores in post-menopausal women with symptoms of fatigue, insomnia and depression when compared with baseline values. The improvement was at least partly the result of an anti-stress effect as demonstrated by a decrease in the DHEA ratio (Wiklund IK et al: Int J Clin Pharmacol Res 19(3):89-99,1999)

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of nearly 400 further studies and articles on Panax are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Panax Ginseng

Ginseng is not for everyone; for some people it will be too 'heating' which may be felt as an increase in agitation or irritability. In practice I am more likely to use it for a 'cool' constitution rather than a 'hot' natured temperament (an introduction to constitutions is written here)

All in all Panax Ginseng is regarded as being extremely safe in terms of adverse reactions and may be safely taken during pregnancy or whilst breastfeeding. Panax has been categorised in some circles as a herb not suited for younger people but It is widely used in the Orient for the young when there is a need to stimulate growth or assist with challenging times (such as in exams). That said it is certainly one of the most revered herbs on earth for the elderly.

General comment on herbal safety

All medicinal herbs that have the power to do good have the potential to do harm. The old maxim 'the poison is in the dose' precisely describes how too much of anything can be bad for us. The ancient rule to 'firstly, do no harm is, to this day, held as the core directive by all practitioners of traditional herbal medicine. Not only are we careful to do our best to use the right herbs, but equally we take care to not give too much of them or use them overlong.

For some years now, against this proven and safe way of herbalism, there has been a rising tide of excessive caution and scare-mongering in many parts of the world. The same authorities that, not so long ago, decried herbal medicines as ineffectual, have now taken up a different adversarial position; that they are dangerous substances that should only be prescribed by Doctors, who of course have zero training in them.

Lists of '10 popular herbs and why you should avoid them' include things like Garlic and Ginger that might 'thin your blood'. Such cautions are absurd to the point of the ridiculous, but fear is a universal driver that has long been proven to be effective at manipulating people.

Unfortunately, the same unnecessary fear and worry has crept into many natural health websites and popular publications on herbs. Herbs that we have safely used for thousands of years, that have no reports of adverse reactions in the medical literature despite widespread use by millions of people, are suddenly described as contraindicated because of something that should have been seen as completely unimportant, or at the utmost a merely theoretical concern, such as a laboratory study on one of the herb's constituents to use an all too common example.

I wonder sometimes if the writers of such articles feel that the herb will be more deserving of respect if it is thought to be a little bit dangerous, in other words more like a drug than something that has simply come out of the earth and been used by ordinary people for generations beyond count.

There is just so much misinformation about herbal medicine on the internet now. Ludicrous claims and cautions abound in equal measure; it seems like one group are trying to make money out of the public whilst the other are busily trying to scare them off.

I have to believe that the kind of reader who takes the time to read pages on herbs that are as extensive as this one is much less likely to be swayed by marketers or misinformers. I hope that you will keep your wits about you if you get conflicting opinions from people who have never really got to know these herbs, who have never worked with them, or learned how to use them safely and effectively.

I want to remind you that the reason that herbs can never be patented and owned by any individual or corporation is because they are, and always will be, the People's medicine. They belong to all of us and it is my great hope in sharing this work that you will learn how to use them wisely for yourself, and the people you care for. Be safe, but do not be afraid.


Personal experiences

I use a very great deal of Panax Ginseng in my work and consider it to be one of the most versatile and powerful of all the tools that Nature has given us to help with the all-too-common fatigue that can insinuate itself into every nook and cranny of life.

I know that there are literally hundreds of Ginseng products in the herbal market-place. Many of them will no doubt be of good quality but it is a sad fact that, given the considerable expense of this particular medicine, far too many contain adulterated or poor quality root (this has been proven in consumer studies on several occasions). For this reason we get all of our Panax Ginseng root from a highly reputable and certified supplier and we make our own medicines from it here in the clinic.

I would similarly encourage anyone wanting to be sure they are getting the right stuff to get in contact with a herbalist of specialist herbal supplier. I use a lot of liquid Panax Ginseng extract and I am also very fond of giving our Ginseng in a powdered form either as a straight slurry mixed in water or in special capsules that we get made up for our clinic where I combine it with the other great tonic herb Withania.

The 'energy' of Ginseng is extraordinary and I well understand why it is so revered in Eastern medicine as it nourishes at such a deep cellular level. Many people start to feel a benefit from it after just a few days but I often like to give quite long course of Ginseng to my patients, perhaps measured in months rather than weeks! Once the patient gets the rhythm of taking a daily dose they rarely want to stop, at least for a while, as it so reliably improves their energy and sense of well-being.

I usually advise people that, after being on it for long enough, to allow their bodies to take a break and just quietly notice if they are really missing its effects after a couple of weeks. The body tells you if you still need to be on it, don't ask me how, it's not just a psychological thing; people feel a kind of body-hunger for it if they still need it.

If you who are reading this are studying herbal medicine or just want to know this plant ally at a much deeper level for your own reasons then I warmly encourage you to take a dose of Panax in the form of its tincture, a strong tea or a half tsp of its powder mixed in water and then, with a quiet and attentive mind, observe for yourself how it makes you feel. This ancient method of 'experiential' learning can give an appreciation of the 'action' of the remedy that no amount of academic learning can reach. You will have to try this for yourself if you are open to making the experiment but, speaking from personal experience and having done this with students and colleagues, I can say that the feeling of this root medicine is very sure and it goes very deep. It is truly a great ally to the tired, the aged and the stressed!

Further to this, if you would like to learn more about the ancient art of pulse testing, a simple but powerful way to ask the intuitive intelligence of the body for its responses to a herb by feeling the pulse whilst giving a tiny dose by mouth, read here

Panax combines perfectly with other great tonics such as Withania root, Licorice root, Hawthorn leaf and berry and Echinacea root.


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Panax Ginseng is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

Part of the reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This useful and rather fascinating subject is introduced further here

Another big part of using the right herb when it is most needed comes from understanding the need to treat what is going wrong for the person that had led up to their getting a health condition. In this light,Panax can particularly offer its benefits when an activation is needed in the 'cycle of healing' , more about this here

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd